A Canoeing Adventure (Part III)
Canoeing alongside the first few wild rice plants was fantastic, almost felt like a fairy tale, to be near the legendary plant. We know it exists in lakes of central and northern Minnesota but don’t expect to see it this far south. The plant is tall, rising out of the water many feet, the long stem is thin. As the few plants here and there became larger clumps, my mind drifted to Native Americans harvesting rice. Historically, rice was an important food for them, later it became a source of income. Wild rice is also an important food for animals. Muskrats graze it in the winter.
We were now heading in a north westerly direction, starting to make our way up Schmoker’s stream. Our paddling became more deliberate and took far more effort. (Larry taught me how to steer, it’s crucial that the front person can steer.)
“You’ll have to steer the canoe,” instructed Larry. Open water was gone, we had to steer our way through the tangle of wild rice trying to head for areas with more water. The tall, lanky wild rice plants bent over us, it felt like rope trying to lodge us in place. I would try to paddle but couldn’t. (Larry taught me how to push and pull instead of paddle.) The paddle would just get caught on the wild rice stems. I reached out and pushed the wild rice back and down several times to keep it from holding us fast. At some point while doing this I sliced my hand just below the index finger. It stung a lot, especially when water ran into it. I decided not to mention it to Larry and tried to ignore the stinging pain. Larry switched between using his paddle and a duck bill pole to push us through. I tried pushing but couldn’t get a good hold to push off on. So I tried pulling. I put the paddle out in front, and tried pulling us forward with all my strength, but I felt like my efforts weren’t doing anything.
Larry was patiently coaching me, “Steer us to the left. Push off or pull.” In a thick patch of wild rice we were closed in; sitting down in the canoe, wild rice hemming us in on all sides, the world of vision became small, all we could see is the sky above, the wild rice around, and the water beneath us. Waterfowl conversed somewhere nearby. Due to the limited view and desire for areas with more water, Larry stood up in the canoe, balancing perfectly, walked toward the front of the canoe. Leaning on my shoulders for support and balance, he carefully stood on the gunwales for a better view, weighing our options and assessing which direction would take us to more open water areas with space to paddle the canoe through. I was just taking it all in, a new and exciting nature adventure, an experience I hadn’t previously had the joy to know: nearly stuck in a patch of wild rice, throbbing cut on my finger, necessity for me to steer the canoe correctly, all to the music of waterfowl chatter.
“Steer us to the left.” With more pressure on my shoulders, Larry stepped down from the gunwales, gingerly walked back to his seat. I placed the paddle on the right side of the canoe, pushed against a clump of vegetation under the water’s surface to direct the bow of the canoe to the left. Then switched the paddle to the left side and pulled, leaning forward, getting a hold on something solid and pulling it back to the canoe with all my strength, core muscles strained. I went back and forth between pushing and pulling. It felt very gradual, but the bow began to turn to our left. “Like this?” I asked Larry. I settled to just pulling having more success with it.
“That’s good, keep pulling it like that.” Larry affirmed. He pushed with the pole.
The wild rice gave way, the bow of the canoe slid through to more open water; then with a little less effort the whole canoe was out in the open. It was beautiful in this little pool of water, surrounded on all sides by wild rice and bulrushes. A quiet place of solitude, reached by hard work, endurance and perseverance. We paddled with ease again, for a few minutes (if even that). Larry scanned ahead, looking for the easiest (wettest) passage through the wild rice and bulrushes.
“Steer us to the right.”
I put the paddle in on the right side of the canoe and pulled the bow to the right. It still took a considerable amount of muscle power to steer the canoe, but it turned with more ease this time, since we weren’t fighting vegetation. I wondered about turning back, but trusted Larry to know what he was doing . And I didn’t mind, it was hard work but we were having an adventure and I was learning how to canoe as work and a mode of travel rather than leisurely canoeing in a small, calm lake or floating down a calm but fast river (though I do enjoy that, too). So despite the struggle of paddling through the thick wild rice and bulrushes, I was enjoying it.
Not long after coming into the small area of open water, we were, once again, pushing and pulling through thick vegetation, unable to paddle. A few times, I almost lost the paddle to the tangle of vegetation. Larry again gave up the paddle for the pole, pushing while I pulled the canoe forward. I felt as if I wasn’t contributing much in the effort of moving the canoe though I pushed and pulled with all my strength, muscles taut. The canoe stopped moving. Larry again walked gingerly toward the front, leaned on me for support and stood upon the gunwales for a better view (I lost track of how many times he did this).
“Let’s back up the canoe, then steer us right toward that little opening.” After he sat back in his seat, we pushed the canoe backwards. Then I pulled it right. The vegetation was trying to keep the bow from turning to the right, making it a struggle and causing us to miss the exact spot we were aiming for. (Again, I lost count of how many times we had to back up the canoe and turn it to the left or right, hoping for easier passage.)
At some point, Larry gave me a chance to choose a direction, “Which direction, Bethany? Steer towards water.” I was excited he had confidence in my ability to help navigate us through the maze of bulrushes.
Larry had stood up in the back of the canoe to gain more leverage in pushing through the vegetation. (It was only once or twice more we came to slightly more open water, but by this point we were canoeing through vegetation.) I felt like he was doing the brunt of the work, as I struggled to push and pull the canoe.
The thick tangle of wild rice and then bulrushes would try to grip the bow of the canoe, attempting to block our passage, and making it difficult to use my paddle without almost losing it. So I began to bend the rice stalks back out of the canoe and the path of the bow. I did this many times in the worst spots that threatened to hold us in place. My hands quickly became covered in scratches as my reward for my efforts. I went back and forth using my hands and the paddle to push over the plants. After awhile, Larry encouraged, “Whack the vegetation down.”
The vegetation wasn’t quite so high or thick, there seemed to be more water, yet we still couldn’t paddle. A domed-shape muskrat lodge was ahead of us; staying our course we would have meant running into it. Not wanting to damage nor disturb the lodge and its inhabitants, and deciding passage through the now predominant bulrushes was easier to our right, Larry instructed, “steer right of the muskrat lodge.” Steering the canoe around it was the most difficult of all the steering Larry asked me to do. I couldn’t find solid enough clumps to push off, nor could I find a solid anchor for leverage to pull the canoe. Trying my best, switching between pushing and pulling, and with all the strength I could muster, I managed to steer the canoe enough to miss the lodge but not quite fast enough to go through exactly where Larry had indicated. No matter, we were through to a more open spot yet still walled in on all sides not many feet away.